The Mouse and the Myth

Sacred Art and Secular Ritual of Disneyland

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Dorene Koehler
  • Bloomington, IN: 
    Indiana University Press
    , April
     180 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Mouse and the Myth: Sacred Art and Secular Ritual of Disneyland by Dorene Koehler attempts to analyze the ritual of a Disney vacation. It treats Disney as a holistic, if patchworked, mythos and the trip to the California Disneyland Park as a pilgrimage, the embodied realization of that mythos. Ultimately the book succeeds in its analysis of a Disney vacation as a religious experience and makes several insightful arguments relating to the nature of play as well as Nietzschean philosophy. However, its oscillation between analysis of ritual and the history of Disneyland is at points distracting. In several places the reader would be forgiven for being unsure if this were a rigorous academic work or something bought in a gift shop on Disney’s `“Main Street USA.”

Koehler argues that pilgrimage has become next to impossible in the wake of the so-called Death of God. “This proclamation” she suggests, “intuits a paradigm shift in the psychological life of European culture which eventually [became] the reality for American culture. … What Nietzsche seems to begin to sense is the loss of the ability to see the world around us as an animated playground for the archetypal, the disappearance of gods and monsters and the triumph of the human rationalism” (30). However, a trip to Disneyland—because it is meant primarily for children—provides something of a loophole to the West’s dominant philosophy of rationalism. The park’s attempt to create a magical place for children creates an environment wherein adults are allowed to drop that rationality momentarily and experience magic for themselves. Such a release would be unacceptable in any other secular environment. For this reason, Disneyland is unique among secular locals in its ability to provide an experience beyond the physical world, one Koehler refers to as a “humanist ritual,” one made possible precisely because adults “know” it’s not real (31). Moving forward from this point Koehler outlines how visitors to the theme park have such a transcendent experience.

However, Koehler’s style distracts from the rigor and nuance of her work. She admits that she has also experienced the magical journey both as a tourist and pilgrim. As one reads there are points when this overly excited Disney fan pops onto the pages. For instance, her description of the “Magical Tiki Room” argues that it is “a source of comfort for many Disney patrons. Each time a visitor returns; they are treated to this attraction that creates the tikis of yesteryear” (99). Who are these “Disney patrons” receiving comfort from the “Tiki Room.” Elsewhere she suggests, without much context, that “Disney’s images are the height of secular art” (103)? One wonders what art critic she connected with to make such a claim. Examples akin to the following abound in the work, at best suggesting a relaxation of academic rigor in those areas.

On the whole this is a good book. It would prove especially useful to the instructor of undergraduates seeking a way to introduce basic theory of myth. A trip to Disneyland is an experience most can relate to. Koehler’s work also does much to show the need to apply religious studies skills to secular experiences, which can serve to showcase the value of religious studies scholarship beyond the actual study of religion. Indeed, Koehler is successful in enumerating the ways a training in the study of myth can alter the day-to-day and even their trips to Disneyland.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Taylor Kerby is an alumnus of Claremont Graduate University and holds Masters’ Degrees in Education and Religion.

Date of Review: 
October 30, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Dorene Koehler holds degrees in mythological studies with emphasis in depth psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute. Her main area of research is American popular culture, particularly Disney studies. She presents periodically at the Popular Culture Association’s National Conference and the Film and History conference through the University of Wisconsin at Osh Kosh. She also presented at the first Discussing Disney conference held in 2014 through the University of Hull. Her most recent article on Walt Disney as a manifestation of the trickster archetype grew out of that presentation and will be published in a forthcoming collection of essays.


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